Imagine a patient who upon hearing a potentially life-threatening diagnosis embarks on a spate of binge drinking and chain smoking. That should give you a pretty good idea of what it was like to be a Virginia Republican this past week.
Following his stunning 11th hour decision not to run for President last year, it was pretty clear that former Democratic governor Mark Warner would try to re-enter politics at some lower, more manageable level. His announcement this week that he would try for the Senate in 2008 came as no surprise following the retirement of the namesake he ran against as "Mark Not John" in '96.
Instead of marshaling a real effort to find a candidate who could go toe-to-toe with the popular Warner, Virginia's GOP has so far opted to go down the merry path to obliteration in '08.
Running on the Republican side is Tom Davis, the tactically shrewd Fairfax County Congressman who chaired the NRCC and is patron to Northern Virginia's dwindling GOP machine. He'll face former governor Jim Gilmore, whose 11th place Presidential candidacy cum publicity stunt generated precisely one item worth a mild chuckle: popularizing the term "Rudy McRomney."
A Rasmussen poll out this week shows just how steep a climb both Davis and Gilmore face. If the election were held today, the relatively moderate Davis would lose to Warner 57 to 30 percent. Gilmore, the more conservative of the two, gets crushed by a slightly less daunting 54 to 34 percent, but has little room to grow given that he is widely known as a former governor.
Rather than staying on the sidelines to wait for a more viable choice, Virginia Republicans are rushing into the fray of the Davis-Gilmore food fight. Gilmore opened by announcing the endorsement of Commonwealth's Republican national committeeman and committeewoman. Davis on Wednesday countered with 2005 gubernational nominee Jerry Kilgore and a list of eight GOP Congressional district chairs supporting his candidacy.
This is a fight unguided by principle or purpose. If you support Tom Davis, it's likely because you're a member of or indebted to The Tom Davis Machine. If you support Jim Gilmore, it's probably because you can't stand Tom Davis. Defeating (or severely bruising) Mark Warner or rebuilding the Republican Party in Virginia doesn't even factor into the equation. It's all about settling scores within the party, and who can be the last to breathe fresh air as the Titanic swirls to the ocean bed.
Virginia can do better.
For Republicans dispirited by the field so far, there is hope -- and a choice. A week ago, I wrote about Eric Cantor, a conservative hero in the House and member of the GOP leadership, as the best choice for the Senate. The call for Cantor was echoed by National Review and picked up by well-connected Virginia and Beltway blogs from Mason Conservative to the Influence Peddler.
If he made the race, Cantor would have distinct operational and political advantages that would bode well for him in a nominating convention. He is known as one of the most prolific fundraisers in the House. He hails from the pivotal Richmond suburbs, which means he can talk to both the southside and Northern Virginia suburbanites. He's a rising star in his early 40s, after just three terms in the House. He is young and fresh just like Mark Warner once was. He's unapologetically conservative, scoring 82 percent on the Club for Growth's RePORK Card, the highest of the House GOP leadership. And he gives as good as he gets, making him an exceptionally tough foe for Warner.
Mark Warner's camp agrees. They polled a Cantor vs. Warner matchup, and hinted that he would be a stronger opponent than either Davis or Gilmore despite what has to be his lower name recognition statewide. But a Warner adviser adds this, "But Cantor isn't getting into this race." Ri-iight. You don't spend hard dollars polling a prospective opponent you don't fear and won't run.
The Warner camp's attempts to talk Cantor out of the race notwithstanding, a Senate run would probably fall outside of Cantor's expected career trajectory. Cantor's colleagues widely expect he'll lead the House some day. When and if he does, it would be the best hope in a generation for unalloyed conservative leadership at the helm of that body. So this is understandably a difficult decision: risk the relatively safe path of leadership in the House, or embark on a riskier path by holding a Senate seat that should rightfully be ours, possibly setting up a future run for governor or a spot on a national ticket?
The lesson that should transcend Eric Cantor is that conservatives must think boldly about recruiting the right candidates to run for office in the first place. We also need to think about why the Democrats clean our clocks when it comes to electing Senators in red states, when the natural conservative majority in the Senate is 60 -- if all we do is win in the states President Bush carried in the dead-heat 2000 election.
It starts by not limiting ourselves to an existing menu of options concocted by the political establishment. In every race we need to identify the ideal candidates both in and out of politics, years in advance if necessary, and work tirelessly to get them to run. It's easier to get elected officials to vote conservative if they're one of us to begin with. Some of conservatism's brightest young leaders came to politics not through working their way up patiently through the ranks, but by making a mark on issues. Think of governor-in-waiting Bobby Jindal running Louisiana's health system at the age of 25, or anti-earmark hero Jeff Flake leading the conservative Goldwater Institute in Arizona.
Rampant careerism and playing it safe gives you Tom Davis and Jim Gilmore, undoubtedly fine men whose brand of politics was desperately needed at one point in their careers, but whose candidacies now serve as little more than empty vessels for party factionalism. The powers that be in Virginia would be wise to stay on the sidelines, and bide their time for a candidate who can begin the process of rebuilding a shaken Republican brand in the Commonwealth.
The criteria for supporting candidates is not: Who can help me even up the score with a fellow Republican? If this is about winning back the majority and not local fiefdoms, it must be: Why not the best?